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On one side of Sultanahmet Park, Hagia Sophia dominates the skyline with its red walls and minarets. It was originally built in 360 AD and for more than a thousand years was a Christian church. It belonged to the Orthodox Catholics for the whole time, except for a 57 year period between 1204 and 1261 when it was a Roman Catholic cathedral.
In the ebb and flow of the cultural tides, this ‘occupation’ was more than a ripple. Relics from the church – described as a stone from the tomb of Jesus, the Virgin Mary’s milk, the shroud of Jesus and the bones of saints – were stolen and sent to the west.
But it was two hundred years later that the most dramatic wave was felt. Sultan Mehmed invaded the city in 1453 and, upon capturing the building, declared immediately that it should be turned into a mosque. The tide shifted and the cultural makeup of the city was set in the direction that would lead it to modern times.Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum. From the inside and the outside, it looks like a mosque and it’s hard to imagine the cathedral form. The low-hanging lights in the main hall add a glowing brilliance to the room, while the enormous dome is one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture. The high ceilings – higher than most religious shrines in the world – make you feel insignificant in the presence of a deity.
It’s not hard to understand why this landmark has always been considered one of the most important in Istanbul. Emperors have been crowned here, refugees have taken shelter here, treasures have been hidden here. As I said, it is technically a museum now, but you can feel the life within the walls.